Over Christmas, I finally picked up a book I’d been wanting to read for years: John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio. The book is Dunne’s reporting on Twentieth Century Fox and its head of production, Richard Zanuck, ca. 1967, when Zanuck gave Dunne reign to poke around the studio and write up it with little-to-no supervision, to such a degree that Dunne himself didn’t understand why Zanuck was so open.
That is to say, there is much to anticipate from a book with such unfettered access, and yet, it’s never clear to me what Dunne is intending to show with his reporting. He offers us transcribed conversation after transcribed conversation – a great primary source about what Hollywood was like in the late sixties, to be sure – but I still can’t figure out what he thinks it all means or whether it hangs together. It’s as though Dunne believes that the significance of the episodes he recounts is always self-evident. Either I’m too dense to see the significance, or (I pray more likely), Dunne just didn’t put it in there.
I only finished the book, actually, hoping Dunne would end on an editorial note that would at length or even briefly touch on what he thought of the preceding scenes. Not so, even when it would seem ideal for Dunne to step in and weigh in on what he’s recounting. This failure might be most acute when Dunne quotes Darryl Zanuck, Richard’s father and president of the studio, talking about how the life of Malcolm X might make a good story. As quoted by Dunne, Zanuck the elder explains the social impact of the Studio:
A picture like this can make a social contribution. Like The Snake Pit. After I made that, eleven states changed their laws about insane asylums. And How Green Was My Valley. It was laid in England, but it was the first picture to attack unfair unionism.
I’ve already said most of what I want to say about Game of Thrones, but an article on slate.com posted late last week has drawn me out of Game-of-Thrones-commentary retirement. I found this essay displeasing almost in every paragraph; it was delightfully complex and subtle in the ways it managed to annoy me, and as such deserves some in-depth treatment.
Ostensibly pro-GoT, Jack Hamilton’s piece celebrates the show for its great escapism. Toward the beginning, he describes Game of Thrones in a manner objectionable on several fronts:
It is about swords and sigils and dragons and frozen baby-crazed zombies and it is decidedly uninterested in transcending these trappings or ironically critiquing them. … Game of Thrones is a terrifically fun and immensely popular show, but can a work so flagrantly inauthentic actually be important television?
Hamilton starts from the premise that anything with a dragon is “inauthentic,” a word he seems to take as a synonym for “unreal,” even though it’s nothing of the sort. We can all agree that GoT is unreal, but the slanderous “inauthentic” implies that the show is deeply suspect just for sporting some fantasy elements.
In the introduction to David Denby’s collection Do the Movies Have a Future?, he imagines the answer, at least for the purposes of the theatergoer who likes a certain kind of quality film: “Well, maybe. Sort of. Perhaps. If certain things happen.”
I think it says a lot that the question is so big and the answer so tentative.
Maybe unsurprisingly, the gist of his opening essay is that the movies are becoming crasser, more commercial, and more frenetic, and he feels that this is definitely bad. He is made “crazy” by this, and mourns what movies use to be like, how a more adult entertainment used to rule the theaters, in a time when Oscar-worthiness was better correlated to popularity. He paints for us a picture of marketing tie-ins and branded entertainment and movies filled with too many explosions and not enough dramatic tension, and this is a world that dismays him. He takes Iron Man 2 as his example, and explains that while Robert Downey, Jr. is entertaining, the movie boils down to well-produced bang-bang without any emotional heft.
I’m with him in all of this, and in fact I’m also unhappy with popular culture in the new century. But Denby wants to make a grander argument out of his unhappiness. In this state-of-the-movies address, he develops a scathing critique of the cultural moment, one that is implicitly founded on the notion that things have gone very wrong with the art of film. It’s not enough that he himself is unhappy; like many people, Denby assumes that the thing that makes him unhappy is a symptom of a larger wrong. He may not say it outright, but it becomes plain through his extended lamentation that he considers the decline of his preferred theatergoing experience something worse than a minor annoyance.
In my essay on Her from a couple of weeks ago, I bent over backward trying to figure how the romance between a man and an artificial intelligence could be boiled down to to one of the big archetypal stories or themes that we struggle with as a species, the kind that have been around since the first campfire story. I ended by concluding the only way to make that link between artificial intelligence and our human condition is to look back to the magic of a more primitive time, when spirits and golems were more naturally part of our understanding of the world.
But since then I’ve been wondering whether I’m starting with the wrong question. I’ve been asking, implicitly, how does this relate to humans? when maybe, in the final analysis (that most conclusive of analyses), the movie can’t just be judged only by its significance to our species. What if this movie is not only for humanity? What if the story is in part about extra-human issues?
Her is clearly for and about people to some great degree. But it’s one of the rare movies that would seem to at least hint at the possibility of an entirely inhuman perspective. Samantha, Her’s operating-system-cum-sovereign-being, begins talking at the end about non-matter processing and partaking in some mind-meld that doesn’t sound comprehensible by Theodore’s puny human intellect. It’s a glimpse of a point of view that has completely effaced the human from it.
I watched Double Indemnity in a few sessions over the past couple of weeks. I’ll admit, I don’t get the love shown for it. To explain, I’ll have to get into some spoilers, so if you’ve been meaning to see it since 1944, but just haven’t gotten around to it, now’s the time.
Chewing over what I find generally unsatisfying about the movie, I come back to what separates the film from the other film noir stuff I know — a limited bunch, sure, but it includes some of the classics. I think I’ve figured it out: I like noir’s cynicism and how it suggests that people in general, and the powerful in particular, tend to exploit others almost as a matter of habit. That is, I like it when the films agree with my gut feeling that people just tend to do what’s best for them and what they can get away with. I like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, at least mostly, because they are sympathetic tour guides to a fairly unsympathetic view of humanity as a whole.
Recently, as I watched one of the first great Iranian films, The Cow, which came out in 1969, I thought about this passage from Godfrey Cheshire’s summary of the Iranian New Wave in a 1993 Film Comment article, talking about Close-Up (which I reviewed in an earlier post and which is possibly the best-known Iranian film of the past 30 years):
Here, after all, is a turbaned Iranian judge listening to impassioned arguments about the practice and value of cinema… . This is not the fearsome, dark-ages Iran of the 6 o’clock news, clearly. It is something far more complex, media-savvy, and oddly sophisticated, if be-turbaned still.
Cheshire spends the rest of the article talking about that sophistication and the subtlety of Iranian films, but the message I take from this passage is that anything “oddly sophisticated” coming out of anybody with a turban is a small miracle in itself. I kind of felt the same way, to be honest, but, at the same time, I think my surprise at finding out I was wrong is the oddest thing, not the sophistication that it turns out Iranian culture could exhibit. Look, I have prejudices and biases, but when they’re proven wrong, I hope my reaction wouldn’t be to take them as logical or any counter-evidence as paradoxical. It’s not really a surprise when other cultures, even ones with strong conservative political or cultural strains, produce amazing cinema.
If I’m going to talk about Close-Up, the 1990 film by Abbas Kiarostami (pretty much Iran’s most lauded filmmaker), I’m going to have to talk about a bunch of things I don’t actually want to talk about before I can get to what actually interests me.
That’s because I only engaged half-heartedly with the film’s biggest idea: Close-Up‘s main thematic strand is the the process and illusion of cinema itself and the artificiality of the movie-making process. The film stems from the story of Hossein Sabzian, an Iranian who (in real life) passed himself off as well-known filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf to a Tehran family of some means, the Ahankhahs. (As an American, I don’t know how classy they were by the standards of Iran in 1990, but they have a kempt house and a gated courtyard.)
Sabzian was arrested after his lie was uncovered, and a large chunk of the movie consists of his trial, in the form of a documentary. This footage is interlarded with stagings of his interactions with the Ahankhahs — which, strangely, are acted out by Sabzian and the family themselves. In fact, as Godfrey Cheshire explains in his Criterion essay on the film, “Contrary to what most first-time viewers assume, none of its scenes are strictly documentary. Not just the reenactments but all the other scenes, too, are at least partly scripted or otherwise contrived by Kiarostami.”